George Gershwin Revisited

By Phillip D. Atteberry

This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag.

Peyser Joan, The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin. New York. Billboard Books, 1998. $18.95

Green, Rodney George Gershwin. London. Phaidon Press, 1998. $19.95


Because George Gershwin was the shortest-lived of the great 20th century American songwriters and died well before the others, one might think we would have him fairly well in focus by now, but we donít. Even though more books have been written about Gershwin than any other American songwriter, opinions about his work and its importance vary widely. The main reason, of course, is that Gershwin was not content to write popular songs. He aspired to be a classical composer also. Those two realms of music have not, historically, fit comfortably together. Imagine a modern jazz composer trying to write blue grass songs. The attempt would surely arouse the suspicions, if not the wrath, of both camps. So it was with Gershwin. As we look back at 20th century American music, George Gershwin's life and career dramatizes the tension of a first-rate folk art (American popular music) encroaching upon the territory of more traditional art (European classical music).

Within the past few months, two new biographies of George Gershwin have landed on my desk for review. Both were published in 1998 to celebrate the centennial of Gershwin's birth. I doubted that two more biographies were needed. After all, ten full length biographies already existed; five full-length studies of George's and/or Ira's work, and chapters devoted to the brothers in numerous books. What in the world could be added to all that?

As it turns out, quite a lot. But the new books are difficult to assess unless one understands where they fit in the larger context of Gershwin biographies. With that mind, a brief comment about Gershwin literature might be useful.

Edward Jablonski's 1987 biography, Gershwin, is considered the definitive work--it is certainly the longest and most thorough of the numerous Gershwin biographies. Jablonski sees Gershwin as symbolizing the youthfulness, brashness and quick-wittedness of America coming into its own. The portrait is both sympathic and extremely well-researched. Allan Kendall's George Gershwin: A Biography (also published in 1987), takes a slightly different view. He sees the split in Gershwin's personality and musical pursuits as representing a split in the American character between wanting to preserve European traditions and wanting to blaze new trails.

Interestingly, both men begin with the proposition that Gershwin's life and career symbolize some facet of 20's and 30's America, though they disagree on exactly what. Every Gershwin biography I have read does the same thing. The effect is to make Gershwin larger than life and more central to his era than he really was.

With that in mind, along comes Joan Peyser with the goal of chopping poor George down to size. Ms. Peyser's biography, The Memory of All That: The Life of George Gershwin, is a slightly revised and thoroughly repackaged version of her 1993 book. I knew I was in for a plentiful dose of dirt-dishing when I encountered the word "iconoclastic" twice on the back cover. "Iconoclastic" literally means "to attack the established view of things," but in biographical code language, it means, "I'm going to tell you things that nobody else has been willing to print." Peyser complains that previous books about Gershwin have been unduly influenced by the sanitizing efforts of the Gershwin family. She wastes no time in assailing previous perceptions and assumptions. Peyser demonizes Gershwin's mother, Rose; argues strenuously that Gershwin secretly fathered a son by the show girl, Margaret Manners; argues less strenuously that he fathered a daughter by an adoring fan, Julia Van Norman; that his friend, William Daley, ghost-orchestrated many of his concert works, and that Ira's wife, Lenore, manipulated to keep him from getting the medical help he needed at the end of his life. And that's just for starters. Peyser did a lot of interviewing for this book, and she has left no racy accusation unuttered.

Even though I do not think this is one of the better books on George Gershwin, a book like this was inevitable sooner or later. Too many like-minded books have been written about Gershwin for too many years, and when that happens, the field is left clear for an "iconoclast." And it's just as well. Some of Peyser's assertions are fanciful, but not all of them. Gershwin may well have fathered that son. The evidence is not conclusive, but intriguing--and a picture of the middle-aged Alan Schneider bears striking resemblance to the middle-aged Gershwin. The problem is that Peyser plays up the evidence that supports her views and ignores evidence that doesn't. In any case, now that she has had her say, she may well prompt new biographers to think more independently, and that will be good.

A better book is Rodney Greenberg's George Gershwin, written as part of Phaidon's 20th Century Composer Series. Greenberg's biography is a well informed, beautifully written centennial assessment. An Englishman who studied music at Manchester University before working extensively with the BBC and later NBC, Greenberg has a thorough knowledge of the musical issues involved, but he also understands the demands and pressures of show business. I like the book because it doesn't attempt to follow the chronological time line. Instead, it is organized according to subject--one chapter devoted to the Broadway shows, another to the concert works, another to Porgy and Bess, and so forth. Such an organization gives a clear to focus to these distinct, though often parallel activities. Even though Greenburg's book contains no startling revelations, the comparisons between Gershwin's concert music and that of other composers is helpful. Greenberg's analysis of Porgy and Bess--its conception, its subsequent mutilation and its gradual reassembling over the decades is also enlightening. Greenberg writes intelligently about the attitude toward Blacks in the opera as well as how Gershwin's music is and is not "jazz." For those interested in a brief portrait of Gershwin and an intelligent, well-focused discussion of the musical controversies surrounding him, this is a fine book and a good read. It's also short, only 220 pages of text with lots of nice pictures.

In some ways, the argument over Gershwin's place in the musical world is of secondary importance. The central point is that, like the land in which he grew up, Gershwin did not understand boundaries or limits. Anything that could be imagined, could be attempted. Gershwin imagined being a world-renown popular songwriter and a world-renown classical composer, and he attempted just that. He was not totally successful, but then who is? In truth, he was successful enough to change the musical landscape.